When parents ask Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, about the difficulties of being a single parent, it is a subject that is very dear to his heart because he was raised by a single parent until age 10. The typical frustration about not knowing how to manage a child’s behavior consistently is very familiar. A general theme runs through what he hears, “I feel like the stress of all I have to deal with is affecting my child’s behavior. What do I do to really be the best model that I can be for my kid?”
This is a very valid concern. Single parents take on the entire stress of the family without having the support of a partner. Too many single parents have a limited social network and little extended family support. They don’t get any kind of break or stress relief from parenting responsibilities. They always have to be “on”. They always have to be present and feel like they must constantly be at their best for the child. This situation is a recipe for inconsistency. Children are sensitive to the mood fluctuations that result from heightened stress, and it affects their behavior.
One of the first things that Dr. Boney recommends to single parents, especially single mothers is to have a very limited number of rules. The fewer the better. For young children the rules could simply consist of:
- keep your hands to yourself
- go to bed at a particular time
- follow the rules
These rules need to be simple and clear enough that the child can easily repeat them if asked what the rules are. The reason to have so few rules is because you only have to consequence, meaning reinforce or punish, the rules you put in place. Once you are less overwhelmed by no longer trying to monitor a long list of rules, you are probably going to be able to make consistently better decisions. Your child is not going to feel like you’re constantly nitpicking. Plus, fewer rules will give your child the opportunity to be successful more often and feel better about their behavior. So, make sure you have only a very few simple rules that are easy to observe, easy to enforce, easy to consequence and easy to maintain.
The next thing on the is list is to be firm and consistent is a loving way. Feeling overwhelmed about taking on all of the parenting responsibilities without any help can create a very unhealthy codependency between child and parent. It’s important to draw the line between parent and child by stressing that you are the parent. That, as the parent, it’s your job to make the rules and that consistently enforcing rules and expectations is your way of doing what is best for them. Seek family and social support as much as possible. Having your child spend time with others can go a long way to break or dilute codependency patterns.
Keep the number of positive actions with your child as high as possible. It’s very common for any parent, but especially for a single parent, to fall into the trap of overly focusing on negative behavior, on what the child is doing wrong. In a healthy, high-functioning home, 70% of interactions between a parent and a child include nothing that’s related to behavior. You should have fun with your childish. You should laugh and play. You should talk about things that have nothing to do with task demands, rules or negative behavior.
This may not be easy, but if behavior is not about one of your main two, three or four rules and you don’t feel strongly about enforcing a consequence about it, don’t make a rule for it. Don’t say anything about it. Let it go. You get the behavior that you consistently reinforce. Tend to the good and you will typically get more of the good.
Create a consistent, predictable and steady routine for your child. Make it so simple that, if asked, your child can tell someone else what that routine or schedule is. Having this level of consistency enables the transfer of responsibility for the routine to the child and develops independence earlier.
Only use silence to calm and collect yourself or to come up with a strategy; never to punish your child or send a message. Single parents can become so overwhelmed that they can retreat into extended periods of silence with a child, which is not beneficial. It’s okay to take a break to regroup and get your thoughts together but never purposely ignore your child. Always be ready and willing to show love to your child and reward and reinforce the good behaviors. Don’t withdraw love and attention to send a message.
A single parent is often a child’s only model, so it is extra important to take care of yourself. Your consistency and effectiveness as a parent is only going to be better the healthier that you are. This includes paying attention to your physical, mental and emotional needs. In especially stressful times, shorten your sights. Instead of allowing the immensity of the situation to overwhelm, take it one day, one hour or even one minute at a time.
Dr. Boney tries to tell all of the single parents he works with to “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” As with all areas of parenting, it’s not about perfection: it’s about improvement.
Utilizing evidence based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions related to being a single parent or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.